Review of Literature
The achievement gap is a term that has evolved over the past decades to describe academic achievement primarily between poor as well as culturally and linguistically marginalized families and other students (Nieto, 2010). According to Barton (2004), equal access to education has become possible with the development of society. However, it is not a reason to guarantee equality in academic success. If to imagine a school where a teacher leads individual lessons for each student in the sphere of their interests, the academic achievements would be on the same level, but in different subjects. However, it is impossible in many reasons. The truth of the matter is that there is insufficient time for one teacher to make individual lesson plans for each child in the classroom. As a result, students in the same classroom receive the same knowledge even if they are three grade levels behind. However, the knowledge students are able to perceive are always different. As a result, the individual approaches do not work as they should be and the achievement gaps increase when students become older. Moreover, the gap is continuously growing. Students’ skills are different, some of them are head in reading but they leg behind in pronunciation. Others have good skills in writing while reading is their problem. Thus, having come to the third-grade students have a range of gaps from the inability to pronounce letters to the skill of comprehending what they are reading. The ideal situation would be having all students ready to enter kindergarten.
Jha (2012) has confirmed that children in younger age are eager to learn and retain information better due to their cognitive development (Jha, 2012). However, early age is the age when the first achievement gaps are formed. Starting from the kindergarten children omit some information as it seems too difficult for them and they are unable to substitute it with the skills they are keen in. This achievement gap increases through grade to grade during the school years (Early Education for All, 2005). Those students who had problems in the kindergarten are not likely to resolve their issues at school and it is hardly possible for them to reach their classmates. Thus, the achievement gap at schools increases, which is the problem of not only schools but also districts and the nation. The review of the literature will explore the significance of brain-based research and early learning. The literature investigates socioeconomic status and environmental contributors to student achievement. It will be followed by a discussion of culturally responsive teaching, cultural similarities and differences on school learning, including strategies for improving skills to promote equality. Early education institutions are of great importance. Such institutions explicitly aim at enhancing children’s education, and they have trained personnel and stimulating materials to foster children’s development in various domains. Pre-K education will be discussed as critical to closing the academic achievement gap. Finally, we will discuss the importance of educational policies in terms of current research on advocacy and early childhood funding, including barriers and best practices.
Brain-Based Research to Facilitate Early Childhood Learning
Being born, human brain is the only organ, which continues its development since it is not formed until the end. First of all, brain is responsible for connecting brain cells. This process can be explained as follows. One hundred billion of nerve cells, neurons, have the axons. The information from one axon is sent to another one creating the required connections, called synapses. As a result, child brain from birth till the age of three years usually creates about 1,000 trillion synapses. The human brain is structured in such a way that the neurons people use become stronger while those which remain unused eventually disappear. According to neuroscientists, some time near the onset of puberty, human brain prunes away all unused or replaced pathways. By late adolescence, about half of the 1,000 trillion synapses of the three-year-old are discarded. The brain continues this strengthening and pruning process throughout life, but it is at its height between birth and puberty.
Being aware of the process of brain functioning, it is possible to explain the learning capacity of disadvantaged learners. Researchers report that increased neural stimulation suggests a possible cause for the enhanced learning capacity of such students (Costa & Kallick, 2000; Jensen, 1998; Lasley, 1997). Since the number of connections in human brain is at peak of its activity during the early age, this is the time when children learn faster. Thus, the great rile in the future students’ achievements play children’s experiences and relationships during the first three years of their lives. The more information a child receives during this period, the higher learning capacity can be expected at the older age. Child relationships also compose a part of the learning process since it is new experience and new knowledge. Also, it should be mentioned that children develop trust to the surrounding during the first year of their life. Trust is the foundation for all human relationships till the end of life. If a child experiences love and care during the childhood, it is more possible to see this child loving and caring in the future.
Social Economic Status and Environmental Contributions
Researchers have long searched for causes underlying scholastic performance disparities in different ethnic subgroups, such as between African Americans and Whites (Ogbu, 1994, 1999, 2002). With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, schools have become accountable for the achievement of the students from both minority and non-minority groups. These results should be sent in the compare and contrast form to show the difference. Also, the statistical data is sent for achievements, gender, and socioeconomic status. Recent findings by Fryer and Levitt (2004, 2006) suggest that the achievement gaps are shaped by different sets of factors at various developmental stages; early family environment may be central for understanding the roots of the black-white achievement gaps. It is important that Fryer and Levitt’s results are replicated to advance our understanding of the sources of persistent racial achievement gaps because the early achievement gaps between blacks and whites have important consequences for disparities in educational attainment, earnings, employment stability and health. In the history of theorizing about black-white achievement gap, conservatives have invoked a “culture of poverty” or genetic explanations for this phenomenon. The conservatives claim that this achievement gap is a result of single-mother families. I disagree with this statement. I do believe that the lower resources that black children have in the contexts of their homes, schools and neighborhoods compared to their white counterparts contribute significantly to group differences in achievement.
The income gap is one of the reasons for the increased social and economic issues in the contemporary society. The problem is explained as follows. Children from the low income families are sure to experience difficulties in education and they are unable to get top quality level of knowledge and skills due to financial restraints. As a result, they can expect to receive low income jobs with the restricted salaries. Thus, the achievement gap is also explained by the income level starting from the kindergarten (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Duncan, 2012; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997: Heckman, 2006; Sirin, 2005).
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Childhood deprivation and poor academic outcomes are closely connected; however, to overcome the achievement gap issue, it is important to break this connection. The effective interventions should be designed in order to prevent the income gap. However, it is difficult due to the differences wealthy and low-income children input in their studying. The level of input in education can also be explained by the interest of the family in child achievements. Parents are less preoccupied with students’ success in low-income families. According to the research, lack of parental interest and involvement in child education is a significant factor in the socioeconomic education achievement gap. Home environment is vital for children’s learning. Research shows that early environments, including prenatal environments do matter and that racial achievement gap may be preventable. Environmental exposures may contribute to achievement gaps. Childhood exposures have been linked to a number of adverse cognitive outcomes, including reduced performance on standardized intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, decreased performance on cognitive functioning tests, adverse neuropsychological outcomes, neurobehavioral deficits, poorer end-of-grade (EOG) test scores, classroom attention deficit, and behavioral problems.
Culturally Responsive Teaching, Cultural Similarities and Differences of Early Learning
Culturally responsive teaching implies using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences and learning styles of culturally different students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them (Saifer et al., 2011; Ford & Kea, 2009; Leonard, 2008). Having an effort “to ameliorate the effects of cultural discontinuity”, teachers search for the strategies to deal with diverse students (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011, p. 66). Ford and Kea (2009) have suggested that the creation of the culturally supportive environment for diverse students can eliminate the possible achievement gaps. However, the creation of the culturally diverse environment teachers should be aware of the peculiarities of different cultures, as only culturally competent teachers can create the environment, which can meet the learning needs of the growing diverse student population (Saifer et al., 2011). Teachers should avoid coursework aimed at students’ drilling in academic skills and “teaching to the test”, because it creates the classroom environments that put teachers and students “miles apart” from each other (Cammarota & Romero, 2006). Therefore, teachers should be attentive to the students’ cultural belonging in order to create supportive environment.
US educational system experiences numerous changes in terms of demographics. More and more students from other cultures appear in the classrooms. Nowadays, statistics shows the increase of students of color, culturally and linguistically diverse, and from low-income families (Howard, 2007). According to Howard (2007), “some teachers, administrators, and parents view their school’s increasing diversity as a problem rather than an opportunity” (p. 16). Ford and Kea (2009) have compared and contrasted the level of white population in the US schools. Their research results have shown that in 1972 the level of white population in public schools was about 78%. By 2005 only 58% comprised while population, while other 42% comprised African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans (as cited in U.S. Department of Education, 2007). However, the teachers are mainly white females. This is the reason why the teaching practices have predominantly remained the same as in the past. Teachers are mainly directed at white students’ population, which can cause serious problems for culturally diverse students as such education is ineffective for them and may lead to academic failure. Equal educational opportunities in the culturally diverse environment can guarantee equal educational opportunities. Cushner, McClelland and Stafford (2009) have argued that a truly equitable education would be excellent at narrowing the achievement gap between cultural groups. Cultural clashes (misunderstanding and miscommunication) in the classroom settings will happen; however, their number could be decreased if educators became more self-reflective, recognized cultural differences between themselves and their students, strived to become more culturally competent, and created classrooms that were culturally responsive.
Harry and Klingner (2007) noted that African American students showed better results in the Educable Mental Retardation than their white peers. Harry and Klingner (2007) asserted that as “the provision of services for students with disabilities became a legal mandate, clear patterns of overrepresentation of Mexican American and African American students in special education programs emerged” (p. 17). Love, Styles, Mundry, and Ri Ranna (2008) have stated that “It is not children’s poverty or race or ethnic background that stands in the way of achievement; it is school practices and policies and the beliefs that underlie them that pose the biggest obstacles” (p. 4). VanSciver (2006) found that low-income and minority families express high level of trust in to school authorities in educating their children. Having shown high level of trust, parents showed some problems in deciding the setting for their children and allowed school authorities to decide for them. According to Allen (2007), the creation of the school-community partnership could resolve the problem of application of students’ school knowledge to their home environments. The author is sure that this is one of the strategies to increase students’ achievements.
School segregation is considered as the expression of discrimination and can influence students’ success (Ramirez & Carpenter, 2005; Ogbu, 1992b). This perception inhibits their academic achievement. Ramirez and Carpenter (2005) stated that there was an oppositional culture that was prevalent in schools from a percentage of minority students. This has resulted in the minority students’ disengagement and lack of participation which caused their achievement to suffer and contributed to increased achievement gap between them and the dominant group (Ogbu, 1992b). Cushner, McClelland, and Stafford (2009) asserted that language played a critical role in the minority student achievement. U.S. schools accept a number of students for who English is not their first language and who have various patterns in communication. This has resulted in a communication break among the teachers and the students impeding the learning process. The educators would be able to respond to the needs of culturally diverse students only if they understand their culture, their own cultural background, and know how the individual cultural background influences student learning. Educators need to improve their intercultural skills so that they could better meet the needs of their culturally diverse learning community (Cushner, McClelland, & Stafford, 2009).
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Ramirez and Carpenter (2005) argued it was important to recognize the differences within the group as it is the first step on the achievement of culturally diverse students. These differences were also important for minority and the dominant groups since it was one of the issues in defining the level of the achievement gap. Ogbu (1992a) is sure that minorities face difficulties in school, such as inferior curriculum, denigrating treatment, and cultural and language barriers. Social and economic barriers are also the issues for the society. However, Ogbu (1992a) has also found that some minorities have managed to adjust to the new environment and achieve success in education. Such minorities have come to the USA on the voluntary basis, not pushed by some particular circumstances. They have positive expectations about living in the country and their lives. As practice shows, children of such minorities do not have serious problems in social adjustment and academic achievement like those who were pushed to come to the country (Ogbu, 1992a). Such factors as background, cultural patterns, family expectations, language ability, school segregation, and ethnic discrimination, as well as the “context of the reception”, also play important roles in academic success.
The success of educational systems in Shanghai, Singapore, Finland, and Norway should be taken as examples for reforming the US educational system with reference to diverse environment. High-quality pre-K education should become the basis for further education in the USA. Despite the fact that pre-K reform is just one aspect in the educational system, its reform can be the first step on the way to improving the educational system in the country in general and reducing the achievement gap between students. It should be noted that different programs, which have been created on the federal finances are not always profitable for children. The efficacy of some programs is higher than of the pothers and this is also the issue. The elimination of the achievement gap in primary and secondary education, it is important to resolve the issue with equality in education in the kindergarten. It is much easier to make sure that all students after the kindergarten have high level of reading and writing skills, while to make each third grade students have the same achievements in education. The major responsibility of the kindergarten is to make sure that children have successfully achieved letter recognition and letter-sound correspondence skills. However, language, mathematics, and social skills are more complicated and making students having equal success in these spheres seems impossible. Pre-school attendance does not lead to a catching-up process of children with lower educated parents. However, without pre-school attendance the gap between children of higher and lower educated parents widen even further.
Every year education policy is changing to meet the social needs. New procedures and plans are implemented with the purpose to help policy makers develop appropriate strategies. Through such actions, policy makers deprive underprivileged children of the opportunity to enter the primary school at a level of preparedness that is comparatively equal to other students, neglecting to correct a fundamental cause of achievement gap.
It appears that policy makers are focused on short-term gains instead of long-term benefits. Education policy makers must consider the equalizing effect that early childhood education has on the achievement gap. Early childhood education is essential to close the achievement gap. Uncertainty about the cost of early childhood education has undeniably caused some delays in funding. Education has been left to local control. The costs associated with the implementation of an effective early childhood program are left to each state. Recently, educational policy efforts have been focused on cutting spending and decreasing taxes. As a result, those initiatives that require increased spending are viewed as unfavorable, and they are unlikely to be pursued by legislators.
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Recognizing the value of early childhood education, it appears undisputed that public accessibility to early childhood education is an effective tool in decreasing the achievement gap. High-quality pre-K is a great way to eliminate the achievement gap. Early childhood education is an important stage in the whole educational system as it helps children combat the lack of academic exposure that poor and minority children experience at an early age, it also serves to give at-risk children a more equal opportunity to be successful in their academic endeavors. Instead of focusing resources upon uncertain educational policies, legislators and decision makers should stop ignoring the vast positive impacts that early childhood could have on the society, and they should begin to focus their energy and discussions upon implementation of the strategies of enhancement in the field of early childhood. Public early education assists in alleviating the achievement gap and providing more equality in the educational system. Early childhood education will financially benefit the United States through the alleviation of welfare and public benefit programs and through developing more globally competitive workforce. Policy makers should take early childhood education as a priority; and in doing so, they should be working to find a way to fund public early childhood education so that all children are given more equal access to education. Therefore, the achievement gap will decrease, and students will be prepared to be productive and competitive workers.